Anticipation works its ceaseless promises and challenges on everyday life, so it has to be also a front-and-
|Job interview about to go horribly wrong in "Didn't See That Coming"|
center aspect of the theatrical experience.
Tilted toward comedy, sensing what's about to happen is bound to involve hilarious missteps and surprises, so the title "Didn't See That Coming" perfectly represents the series of short takes Mark Harvey Levine has created in a show that opened Thursday at Fonseca Theatre.
A production of the Southbank Theatre Company, "Didn't See That Coming" has a variety of settings, mounted on a circular platform revolved by hand for scene changes. It opens with specific evocations of issues theater raises internally, here applied to real-life situations. How repeatable and ordinary is the everyday, and how much might we vainly wish to vary it? How can being able to see what's coming interfere with the give-and-take we expect and adjust to in real life?
That's what we encounter in "Scripted," in which a married couple wakes up to discover an unsettling script on an end table that prescribes everything they will say and do that day. Then in "Surprise," Levine rings changes on how disconcerting a close relationship becomes if one partner is short-term psychic and the other must live each moment as it comes. Spoiler alert: It will not end well.
Having enjoyed about a half-dozen memorable Levine playlets produced for the late Bryan Fonseca's past "Very Phoenix Xmas" productions, it is no wonder to me that his new show draws upon customary professional challenges: his creative outbursts have to be interpreted by actors. What's scripted has to sound fresh, and what actors necessarily anticipate after so much rehearsal must often surprise the characters they play as much as it does the audience.
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Fortunately, "Didn't See That Coming" goes beyond dramatized shoptalk to cast the playwright's net across a variety of incongruities. Director Anthony Nathan and his cast of six vigorously follow Levine's wild lead. The eight playlets let up in manic intensity fruitfully in two Act 2 sketches in which genuine lessons about parents ("The Folks") and intimacy ("The Kiss") receive wry, oddly uplifting treatment. The norm is bracing juxtaposition, however, and there the laughs flourish.
Levine's comedy recalls English man of letters Samuel Johnson's withering assessment of 17-century "metaphysical" poetry, in which "the most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together; nature and
art are ransacked for illustrations, comparisons, and allusions." After more than two centuries, we have a calmer way of processing such literary violence, so Johnson's objections seem quaint, but also have startling relevance to common-practice comedy today.
Johnson grudgingly admired the wit of the metaphysicals, and Levine's work richly abounds in that quality. In "The Rental," a sketch about an unexpected boyfriend-for-a-day gift from a friend, the female recipient has to sign a contract and initial it in two places. It's a small detail, and characteristic of Levine's witty ransacking of contemporary life for "illustrations, comparisons, and allusions."
The material obsessions of childhood get an uproarious send-up in "Defiant Man," which opens Act 2. The sketch brings back a man's juvenile enthusiasms in physical form: beloved superhero action figures. A couple is going through boxes of such memorabilia, with the wife pushing her husband to discard or sell the long-forgotten items. Magically, she doesn't see or hear the life-size simulacra, the more vocal and demonstrative of whom is delightfully played by Paul Hansen in the title role. In his strident terms, maturity is seen as putting away
childish things, but undesirable, as it also means self-exile from an imagined Eden. The other actors have the same practiced knack for fitting snugly into a huge span of roles. They are Angela Dill, Terra McFarland, Alex Oberheide, Ryan Powell, and Michelle Wafford.
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Distinguishing the real from the false is of course a staple of comedy. Levine goes to the edge of philosophizing about it in this sketch's neighbor, "Plato's Cave," which concludes Act 1. The cast brilliantly negotiates a clutch of quick-change scenes depicting the central character's transport across several planes of reality — from channel-surfing with a roommate to classroom to coma to family life — as he tries to get a grasp on where illusion lies. If you turn around and look outside the Greek philosopher's cave of appearances, you perceive ultimate reality, he notes hopefully. In theater, sense perception has to be taken for granted, so the sketch evoked for me more strongly the Cave of Montesinos in "Don Quixote," where illusions take kaleidoscopic turns through ill-founded idealism and reality's hard knocks.
The pop-culture genre in which macabre fantasy intersects with the everyday is the basis for the climactic sketch, "The Interview." A candidate for a job in protection against zombies is grilled by an HR executive. The rigors of the job interview get effectively skewered, with the applicant providing one presumably winning answer after another, then desperately switching sides after the interviewer's wounding transforms her.
The horrifying adventure opens up lots of satirical avenues for Levine. Today's social and workplace pressure to be open to all sorts of alternative identities is forced upon the applicant. Diversity, equity, inclusion, anyone? See how that works when it comes to zombies.
But because we are inclined to react, with a shrug or a gasp, "Well, I didn't see that coming," who knows what kind of preparation will save us? Levine's variety of comic perspective may be our only fleeting hope. The show continues through May 14.